In the NFL, Balancing Technology with Tradition

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Each week, millions of people watch NFL games on their televisions or in person. Increasingly, they also follow the action on a second or even a third screen. Smartphones, tablets and computers let fans follow their fantasy teams, talk about football on social media or even watch another game, all from the stadium or the couch. 

Fans are certainly aware of how technology has changed their experience of watching games. They may not always notice, though, how technology has changed the game itself — for the betterment of the league, coaches and players, and even the fans.

Television may have changed the league more than any other technology, and it certainly enabled many of the league’s biggest advancements. It fueled the dramatic increase in the NFL’s popularity and profitability. The instant replay system emerged from — and was a result of — improved broadcast technology. Teams use footage to evaluate and coach players, and the league uses it to grade officials. Television also has led clubs to upgrade stadiums — including the installation of enormous video displays — to compete with the viewing experience at home.

Television isn’t the only technology to have affected the game. Advancements have allowed the NFL to evaluate and improve officiating and protect players. Technology helps players and teams communicate and gives coaches the tools needed to create game plans and to adjust them on the fly.

It speeds up the pace of games, ensures that each contest runs fairly and smoothly and improves the fan experience — for those watching on television and those at the games.

State-of-the-art technology powers the command center the league uses to monitor games and evaluate its officials, drives the instant replay system that assists officials in getting calls right, and enables the wireless communications coaches, players and officials use during games.

Alberto Riveron, NFL senior vice president of officiating, takes you behind the scenes at Art McNally GameDay Central — the league’s officiating command center.

Technology provides players with electronic playbooks and position-specific game film on club-provided tablets. As the game unfolds, coaches can dissect opponents’ offense and defense on league-provided tablets.

Technology also helps better protect the players. Its impact is felt in sturdier playing surfaces and more advanced pads and helmets. It allows teams to keep electronic medical records to better treat players and allows certified athletic trainers to use video to spot possible concussions and other potential injuries during games.

All of this technology presents challenges for NFL Football Operations staff. This is particularly demanding on gameday, when it all must operate smoothly for a fast-paced, time-sensitive, live event that at best is unpredictable and is sometimes played in bad weather. Making it all work requires attention to detail and the technical knowledge to troubleshoot on the fly.

Game Operations staff must check every system before a game, identify and prevent radio frequency conflicts, and address technological problems, even as the action continues. A tremendous amount of coordination is required — not only internally, but also with teams, broadcasters, stadium staff and emergency services.

Each week, NFL event frequency coordinators must navigate countless spectrum conflicts. Licensed bandwidth from the Federal Communications Commission continues to shrink as demand continues to grow. Frequency coordinators make sure anyone using a wireless microphone, walkie-talkie or radio is on the correct channel to allow as many people as possible to access the bandwidth they need. Without this, the long list of people who need to access the spectrum each game could find themselves fighting over the same frequencies and unable to perform their jobs properly.

“That massive collision is happening in our stadiums every weekend,” said Michelle McKenna, the league’s chief information officer. “That has to get solved — whether we buy, rent or partner with someone who owns frequency.”


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